The roots-rock tag sometimes can be a kiss of death, implying a backwards-looking, almost academic rehashing of sounds that once were. But the Derailers look backward with vigor. A museum piece they ain’t.
“My grandpa worked on the railroads,” says singer guitarist Tony Villanueva in a reverential tone when describing the history of the band’s name. Not only does the name drag up images of early rockabilly, Jimmie Rodgers and western swing, but the look does too: “Before we go onstage, we get all dressed up: western shirts and string ties. We want to show the people that this is a serious job for us, and it makes us feel better out there on stage.”
Their sincerity shows on the Derailers’ studio debut, Jackpot , which overflows with energy and commitment. “There’s just so much in the old styles,” says Villanueva, referring to the Bakersfield icons of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. The Derailers have added a whole lot more of what’s missing in current country radio. Call and response choruses, for instance. And two-part harmonies. Fiery guitar leads that spark out of the speakers. Tracks that don’t need to be remixed to get heads nodding and boots dancing. It’s a record that starts off strong, lets up the tempo but not the urgency for a few ballads, and wraps up smokin’. The lyrics are rich with ideas that should have been tapped long ago: How could a line like “This big city seemed like a small town ’til you left me’ ” go unrecorded for so long?
The Derailers received a big helping hand from roots-rock godfather Dave Alvin. “He checked us out when he was in Austin recording the last Chris Gaffney record; I even ended up singing on a few tracks,” Villanueva says. Alvin ended up getting Watermelon Records interested, first for a track on the Austin Country Nights compilation, then on a full studio album. “He helped us with arranging the songs; he’s good at making sure just the right word goes where it should,” Villanueva says. The expertise has rubbed off. Already admired by their roots-rock peers and in their hometown, the Derailers plan to drive their music home with a full year of touring behind Jackpot, which came out in late February.
None of the band members are Austin natives. Villanueva and guitarist Brian Hofeldt are from Oregon and moved to Austin a couple years ago. Bass player Vic Gerard is from Wisconsin and met the others when the Derailers we opening for his previous outfit, Two Hoots & A Holler. Lisa Pankratz, who’s worked with Ronnie Dawson and High Noon, handled drumming chores on Jackpot.
“Well, you know, Buck started in Texas, Merle was from Oklahoma, and they both ended up in California. Brian and I grew up off highway 99, which also goes through Bakersfield,” Villanueva says, perhaps stretching a geographical metaphor beyond its limits — but the connection seems stronger than the miles of Highway 99 would indicate. After all, with roots like those, it’s hard to go wrong.